How Young People Can Strengthen their Response to Mental Health: Part I of Interview with Neerja Birla

Today marks World Suicide Prevention Day - in India, Mpower and Neerja Birla are doing their best to strengthen youth resolve.

Today, on September 10th , as we are marking the World Suicide Prevention Day, Neerja Birla, Founder and Chairperson, Aditya Birla Education Trust returns to speak with Youth Time Magazine on mental health importance for young people, and on the work Mpower , a mental health organisation under the Aditya Birla Education Trust, has been doing during the COVID-19 pandemic to help people facing mental health issues. 

Working in India, a country where mental health has been a taboo surrounded by stigma, Birla shares her expertise and also advises youth how to take care of their mental health and not hide their issues under the carpet and suffer in silence. 

While we are starting the discussion, she considers that every year 135,000 people take their own lives in India, and sadly, a student commits suicide every hour [source: National Crime Records Bureau]. 

And so, every year on World Suicide Prevention Day, Mpower creates a cross digital platforms campaign to sensitize the masses to suicides arising out of mental health concerns. 

“If our campaign can save even one life, we believe that it is worth it,” Birla says. 

After finishing this piece, you will understand how we can all do our part in creating a mental health positive society where no one has to hide their mental health issues.


Marking World Suicide Prevention Day

Birla recalls that more people take their own lives in India than anywhere else in the world, and there can be nothing more tragic than this. 

This World Suicide Prevention Day, she takes a pledge. 

“Let’s all of us collectively make it our responsibility to create awareness in society about mental health. 

“Let’s spread the word that a mental health issue is not the end of the world, so it shouldn’t lead to the end of a life.”

She calls on everyone to tell each other that no matter how challenging the circumstances are, no matter how dark our thoughts get, there is always light at the end of the tunnel. 

“All we need is timely help, unconditional support and the right coping mechanisms.”


Social Distancing not Emotional Distancing

People in India expressed their worries about contracting COVID-19. This thanks to the help and work of Mpower, which has conducted extensive mental health webinars for NGOs and specifically-designed webinars for the Mumbai Police that were attended by more than 700 personnel.

Foremost, in collaboration with the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, Mpower launched the toll-free, 24X7 Mpower1on1 Helpline in April 2020 to address the mental health issues of people arising out of the pandemic and the lockdowns. 

“The response to this helpline has been overwhelming and our psychologists have been able to help over 78,000 people from across the length and breadth of the country.”

The phobia and paranoia, along with the loneliness and isolation, have caused insomnia, stress, anxiety and other mental health concerns in people, especially youngsters, Birla emphasizes. 

There has also been fear in people regarding their future vis-à-vis financial stability and job security. 

“The youth have expressed worries about their education and exams, and their future. And then, there has been the unfounded stigma attached to this contagion, especially in the early stages where people hide their symptoms from the fear of being shunned by society.

“The counsellors have made them understand that the situation calls for social distancing not emotional distancing.”

Knowing that 20% of young people suffer from mental illnesses (WHO), she tells how important are the initiatives they undertake to advocate prevention for a society free of stigma. 

“When we started Mpower, we realised that the biggest hurdle to mental health that we were facing in India was the lack of awareness.

How Young People Can Strengthen their Response to Mental Health Part I of Interview with Neerja Birla
Making Change: ABET works hard to change perspectives amongst India’s young people

“And so, while we created a comprehensive infrastructure to provide holistic and world-class mental health care to people, we also created a roadmap for creating awareness and fostering education across the country.”


Developing Resilience 

On a similar note, her message to young people is simple: 

“Mental health matters even more than physical health. Without mental wellbeing, there can be no physical health. And taking care of one’s mental health is a multifaceted process.”

Just as one can have a family history of diabetes or asthma, one can also be genetically predisposed to mental disorders, she explains.

“What matters is that we understand it is possible to cure or control them. Mental health issues need not debilitate a person’s life in any way. All children are brought up to talk to a doctor about their physical ailments. It should be the same with mental health.” 

Also, she adds, we are all going to face social and environmental challenges throughout our lives. 

For instance, the COVID-19 pandemic has been hard on all of us in some form or another. 

“This has led to anxiety, stress, depression and a host of other mental health issues in people, especially the youth. In any such scenario, taking care of our mental health is the key to our overall wellbeing.”

All of us want to succeed in our endeavours, she says, however setbacks and rejection are always going to be a part of our journey. 

“Instead of letting the failures or conflicts overwhelm us, we must look at them as stumbling blocks. It is important for the youth to develop resilience to deal with conflict.”

The ability to adapt positively to stress or pressure can help improve one’s mental fitness tremendously. 

“In fact, resilience is both a preventive measure and a coping mechanism for mental health.” 

“It can help one bounce back from challenges and also play a vital role in one’s personal growth. When youngsters deal successfully with a conflict, they emerge with strong psychological skills that can serve them for the rest of their lives.”

Birla further emphasizes a significant aspect of our lives-the virtual world.

“The discrepancy between reality and the virtual world poses its own set of challenges. Relationships are getting affected more and more because of this gap. There is more peer pressure.”

It has also led to the phenomenon of Fear of Missing Out, she recalls.

“To deal with this, the youth must work harder on developing their mental strength and find a balance between the real and the virtual world.”

Importantly, the youth must learn to be mindful of their thoughts and feelings at all times, Birla underlines.

“Holding emotions in, especially negative ones of sadness, fear, failure or conflict, can be extremely harmful.”

Venting them instead can be cathartic and reduce stress, she reminds us, and goes on:

The youth must also understand that it is ok to fail or to be imperfect. 

“There is beauty in imperfection and brokenness can be beautiful. You do not have to ever live up to someone else’s or society’s expectations. “

One should feel no shame in talking about one’s mental health issues, she says, and shares some of their awareness initiatives and their impacts:

  • Ride to Mpower, an annual community cycle ride held from 2016 to 2020, saw the participation of 8200 people who pledged their support for spreading awareness and challenging the stigma.
  • Similarly, The Mpower Fest was a musical concert held in 2017 and 2018 to create mental health awareness. Just in 2018, 20,000 people in Mumbai attended the concert and pledged their support for a mental health positive society. 
  • From 2017 to 2019, each year, a student-led mental health festival- The Happy Place, was held in collaboration with Aditya Birla World Academy to encourage creative and academic exchanges against a backdrop of mental health. 
  • Most recently, Mpower partnered with Bollywood’s biggest icon ever – Amitabh Bachchan to launch the nationwide #SunoDekhoKaho campaign to create in-depth awareness and stamp out stigma. This campaign has touched the lives of over 32 million individuals so far.

The helpline number accessible from anywhere in India is 1800-120-820050.

Stay tuned! We will soon publish the second part of our interview with Birla, where we will discuss their work on a mental health curriculum for the children, Minds Matter.

In the meantime, you can read HERE the interview Birla gave for Youth Time back in May 2020.

Is the World staring At a Mental Health Crisis? A Perspective From a Mental Health Activist

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